Archive: » 2023 » May

Workbench Wednesday: An Excellent Video

At the end of July I’ll be building a premium workbench for Webmeister Tim, who will be visiting.  In order to get in the mind-groove I was browsing youtube for inspiration, not that I really need it, and stumbled across this wonderful short video chronicling the construction of a bench the analog of which I have built four or five.  I probably use at least one my three remaining iterations of them on an almost daily basis (given my inventory of more than a dozen workbenches, one is never more than a step or two away from one).  Easy and inexpensive to build, yielding a heritage workbench for centuries to come.

I might take a slightly different path for some of it but en toto this one is solid gold.


Tidying the Homestead


The big yardscaping push after extensive travel is winding down to the “ongoing maintenance” of summertime, when the living ain’t exactly easy trying to keep three or four acres of hillside under control.  The grass was so deep here it took three back-to-back-to-back mowings to get it under control, some even required using the DR brush mower.

I am hoping we are now down to a routine weekly mowing, but even then it takes two or three days to get it all done.

One of the unexpected tasks on our return was to rebuild the split rail fences alongside the driveway.  While we were gone there was such severe weather that sections were blown over, and if one section of stacked split rail fence goes down you pretty much have to restack the whole length.

I made a couple rookie mistakes on the photos.  First, I did not take a “Before” picture of the split rail fence all falled down, and 2) I forgot to check the camera settings which had been adjusted to reflect much different light conditions of a different project.


I am trying to get caught up enough to begin erecting the greenhouse by the end of next week.  Wish me luck.

Upcoming “Historical Woodfinishing” Workshops

Here’s a quick reminder about the two upcoming workshops focusing on shellac and wax finishing.

The workshop at the barn (my final one here due to my already recounted business insurance termination) will be June 19-21.  For that workshop contact me directly.

The identical workshop will be held at Joshua Farnsworth’s school/shop in Earlysville VA, July 17-19.  Contact Joshua for registration and other information.

I hope to see you there.

Mowing. And More Mowing.

Since arriving back home last week we have been pedal-to-the-metal yard work and garden work.  This means almost all day every day I am outside here in Shangri-la, riding the lawn tractor to get the grass under control, using the smaller trim mower to get the places where the riding mower can’t fit, and using the bush hog as a mower on the portions of the hillsides where the mower would be too tippy.  I’ve already flipped the riding mower over on to me — remember the episode with me winding up in the chilly creek with almost a half ton of machine trapping me underneath? — an accident that by all accounts should have killed me had the mower rolled over just a little more and the steering wheel crushed my chest.   Nowadays I am much more cautious because Mrs. Barn does not want to scatter my ashes just yet.

Yesterday was exasperating in part as I just tuned up the little push mower and hit a hidden stump, bending the brand-new blade less than an hour into its lifespan.  Off to get another as soon as I finish this missive.  Then more mowing, including using the DR walk-behind on the hillside just above the greenhouse terrace.  I don’t really need to post pictures of me mowing the homestead, do I?

At least today it will be cool and cloudy, probably about 60, which will make it a pleasant day to be doing some heavy walking, rasslin’ a 500-pound brush hog.  Oh, and it will be cooler at the burn barrel as I work my way through a pile of brush.

Punctuating all of this is the occasional trip to purchase plants as Mrs. Barn gets her summer gardens, both flower and vegetable, up and running.  In addition she tends gardens at church and the local library, so her appetite for plant shopping is prodigious.  I am delighted to help her with the set-up of the gardens, erecting the structures, hauling bagged composted manure, etc.

My neighbor AM will be getting a greenhouse kit tomorrow and I will be helping him assemble it.  Partly to be a good neighbor, but truthfully just to check out the structure.  Since we are on the cusp of erecting a greenhouse ourselves I want to see if I should order a kit myself or instead order a truckload of lumber to build ours.

All in all a good time to be on the homestead, although tonite may get down into the 30s.

Making Layout Dye

Not too long ago I needed to do some precision layout on brass stock for making some specialty squares and patterns for assembling the Roentgenesque parquetry units for the tool cabinet.  (Those projects will be on these pages shortly.)  Try as I might I could not find my bottle of Dykem, the standard layout dye for the metal working trade since the days of the Mayflower.  So being in the hinterlands on a Saturday afternoon, I made my own.

The starting point, not too surprisingly, was a dilute solution of lemon shellac (given the amount I needed it turns out to have been way too much).  I started with a deposit of the shellac flour adequate to cover the bottom of the bottle fully.

I then filled the bottle with ethanol to dissolve the shellac.  To this I added some Trans Tints until the chromatic intensity got to where I wanted.

And with that, I was done.  The bottle I now have will certainly last me long into the afterlife, I should have only made about 1/10th as much.

I am certain that as soon as I complete these projects my original bottle of Dykem will be in plain sight.


PS  We are finally back to Shangri-la after three weeks of time with the family.  L’il T is just a gas.  Once we get the yard dealt with (literally knee deep) I’ll be resuming my “normal” routine.

Plywood Agonistes

Many, many moons ago I settled on a curriculum for my workshops on Historic Woodfinishing, a curriculum based on a series of finishing exercises that would yield a set of sample boards for each student to keep.  I originally instructed each student to bring a small finishing project for us to work on during the class, but the wild variety of those projects made it too troublesome to make sure everyone got the learning experience I had in mind.  Hence, the plywood panels.

For the first 25+ years this syllabus worked just fine as good quality plywood for the sample boards was easily and inexpensively obtained.  I would buy a stack of 24″x48″ birch or luan panels to use (frequently I could find luan plywood that was very mahogany-like) and all was well.  The first chink in that regimen was after the Iraq war when vast quantities of building supplies in the mid-Atlantic were going overseas to rebuild that region, but even though local inventories were diminished and prices increased I could find the necessary materials.  After that stretch things got better again and I could find pretty good 24″x48″x 1/4″ birch panels for around $9 and luan panels of the same dimension for about $5.

Then came the increasing disruptions with industrial inventories, culminating with the imposed collapse of the supply chain three years ago.  Ever since it has been a real chore to find the requisite supplies for a workshop at a reasonable price.  As a result I have always been on the hunt for acceptably good quality/affordable plywood for use in the classes, frequently “stopping in for a look” at almost every lumber yard to check out their inventory.  There was a stretch of time where even garbage inventory was running almost $40 for the birch panels and $25 for the luan.  The culmination of my struggles played out in my most recent workshop last month when the supply of materials I could find was really not acceptable for the workshop outcome I desired, to the point where I apologized to the students and will in fact be making a new set of sample boards to send to each of them.

Yes, I know this is mahogany lumber, but it does reflect the quality of plywood I was looking for.  Pad polishing on an exquisite surface makes the whole enterprise a resounding success.

Recently while visiting my daughter I was pleased to find some better-quality plywood panels at a less heart-attack-inducing price and bought a stack that should serve me well for the summer upcoming.  Still, while visiting her I called around to find some premium plywood, either mahogany or walnut, to provide one or two small pieces for each student to go along with the luan and birch.  Much to my delight I found a place about twenty miles away that had what I wanted!  I arranged to go there last Friday to pick up a couple of sheets.

As I piece together the threads of the story, the lumberyard was a father-and-son operation that was based on them building custom cabinetry.  Over the years they had built a sideline of ordering excess materials for their projects into a thriving but small premium lumber and plywood operation.  It was with great anticipation that I set out for their place.  Little did I know at that moment that an electrical fire two days earlier had burned their shop and warehouse to the ground, destroying all the tools and machines they used for their cabinetmaking and all of the inventory in the connected small warehouse.  It was clear that they were still in shock, but hopeful that they could rebuilt their business with help from friends and customers who were already giving them tools and machines to get the ball rolling.  The hardest nut to crack will be their status as completely uninsured.  They will have to rebuild completely on their own resources.

The conversation with them, looking out over the still freshly burned building, made me reflect on two other catastrophic fires in recent years.  First was that of my penpal from the Great California Fire three years ago, when it wasn’t just his shop that burned down, the whole town was left looking like Hiroshima.  A second was a shop fire for a notable furniture maker in NYC.  In the latter case I contributed substantially to the GoFundMe effort, in the former I packaged and sent several boxes of tools and supplies to help a comrade-in-arms get going again.

Which somehow brings me back to the status of activities at the barn.  I spoke yesterday with my faithful insurance agent who confirmed that the carrier for the business activities of the barn has terminated my coverage, and despite his yeomanlike efforts he cannot find another carrier to provide me with business liability insurance.  Goodbye workshops.

Plus, these vignettes have drawn my attention to be even more conscientious regarding to fire risk in my own shop.

Lastly, it reconfirmed for me the virtue of us taking care of each other in times of need.  I have very little sympathy for the indolent, but an immense inclination to care for those to whom care is needed.  I hope you will as well.


My longtime pal Ripplin’John sent me photos of his latest project en route to an MFA (at our age John, what were you thinkin’?).  Seriously, I am immensely proud that we are friends, my circle of close friends is actually quite small, and of his artistic and technical accomplishments while exploring the realm of artistically integrating wood and metal.  Some time ago I gave him a copy of the Matthew Boulton book and is now going to town.

This “lunch box” employs classic boullework techniques, right down to the engraving.  In his own words,

I changed the normal procedure somewhat.   I printed the drawing on PNP paper and then transferred it to a brass blank slightly larger than the size of the sides.  After engraving the brass, I assembled the packet with shop-made veneer and cut out the pieces as needed.  Doing it this way meant that I was engraving much larger pieces of brass. Holding the very small pieces after cut out would have been pretty tough.
Each assembly was then glued to another piece of veneer before gluing to the box. This was done to ensure that a failure of the glue up on one side would not wreck the whole piece.
The corners, finial and cheese crackers are cast bronze.


Well done, sir.  You can tell him so in person at Handworks where he will be helping me in my booth.